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ESPN Research on bias and viewership

(Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

In recent weeks, a frequent story line claims that ESPN is losing viewership because of a liberal bias in our coverage.

Within our Research group, we have actively looked at the question of perceived political bias for more than two years now. We have studied it from all sides of the political spectrum and party affiliation to see how fans react or do not react to our coverage of the intersection of sports and social and political issues.

Our most recent survey was conducted May 3-7 by Langer Research Associates of New York, a nationally recognized and award-winning research firm, the findings belie the notion of any impact on our business:

  • Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents believe ESPN is getting it right in terms of mixing sports news and political issues. Another 10 percent had no opinion … and 8 percent said ESPN does not do enough politics in its programming.
  • The proportion of viewers who see political bias in ESPN programming is unchanged since this survey was last conducted in October 2016 (even as recent months have seen a rise in the number of media outlets speculating on this theory).
  • Of those who see a bias, 30 percent actually believe ESPN expresses a conservative viewpoint. Most importantly, even those who identify as conservative (or Republican) actually rate ESPN’s overall performance higher than those groups had in October.
  • Of those who see a bias, 30 percent actually believe ESPN expresses a conservative viewpoint. Most importantly, even those who identify as conservative (or Republican) actually rate ESPN’s overall performance higher than those groups had in October.
  • Using a 1-10 scale (with 10 being the best score), strong conservatives rank ESPN at 7.2 and Republicans give a 7.1, both up 0.5 from October. That compares to liberals and Democrats (each at 7.0), and is close to an 8, which is considered “highly rated” (45 percent of the total sample scored ESPN 8-10).

So what conclusions can we draw?

Do some Americans disagree with how certain societal issues are discussed on ESPN platforms when they intersect with the world of sports? No doubt.

Does it affect their viewing behavior? Not in any material way. Indeed, in 2016 and for the third straight year ESPN was the highest-rated full-time cable network among Men and Adults aged 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.